Since March of this year, I have received a steady stream of short, comical videos my friends created and crafted with the assistance of the social media app TikTok. I assumed this new directorial hobby was the spawn of quarantine boredom and would quickly fizzle out along with the app itself. I was wrong.
According to Forbes Magazine, TikTok is the most downloaded social media app. It is estimated that more than 100 million U.S. citizens have downloaded TikTok since it was introduced to the United States in 2018. During the first rounds of stay-at-home orders, however, downloads of the app skyrocketed and new subscribers keep coming. So, what exactly is TikTok and why has it become so popular?
TikTok is a social media app that allows subscribers to create and share videos that are one minute in length or less. TikTok is different from other more well-known social media apps such as Facebook in that a TikTok user does not start off by “building” a page. Instead, when a user first downloads and opens TikTok a host of short length video appear. The user can then scroll through the various videos or utilize the search function to discover videos related to a topic of interest or created by a particular person. The more videos the user watches, the more the app “learns” through the application of artificial intelligence what the user likes and thus the more videos of a similar nature that are presented to the user.
TikTok is also different from the traditional social media apps in that its primary objective is not to maintain social connections through the posting of still pictures and written blurbs. Instead, TikTok encourages users to watch and/or produce artistic video content. As a result, the vast majority of TikTok videos feature average joes happily dancing, while often, also lip syncing. Just Google “Ocean Spray Guy” and you’ll see what I mean. It is this recipe of amusing, creative and short entertainment baked into in an easily accessible package that has fueled TikTok’s popularity. However, many politicians, including President Donald Trump, are not happy about TikTok’s growing presence in the United States.
In August, the president issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. companies from advertising with TikTok or offering TikTok for download via an app store citing national security concerns so long as TikTok remains with its parent company, ByteDance. To comprehend the underpinnings of this executive order, it is important to understand that TikTok was created in China and is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company.
Like almost every app, TikTok asks users for access to their cameras, photos and contacts upon download. TikTok also collects keystroke patterns with the purpose of better understanding the user. Because ByteDance is a Chinese company, it could be required to assist in surveillance and intelligence operations at the direction of the Chinese government pursuant to Chinese laws. Thus, the fear is that ByteDance could turn over to the Chinese government a huge swath of data that it has collected from its U.S. TikTok users; something TikTok has stated that it has not and will not do.
TikTok is now challenging the president’s executive order in federal court. On Dec. 8, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., granted TikTok’s request for a preliminary injunction which stopped the U.S. Department of Commerce from implementing the president’s executive order. However, further litigation may not be necessary if TikTok is able to negotiate a deal with a U.S. company in which the U.S. company would buy TikTok and its data. The good news for avid TikTok users, and my familial TikTokers, is that such negotiations are in the works between TikTok and Walmart.
Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.